Hombre by Elmore Leonard

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Of the thirty or forty books by Elmore Leonard that I know about, I have only read three: “Fifty-two Pickup”, “Rum Punch”, and “Hombre”. Of those three, “Hombre” is easily my favorite. In fact, among Westerns generally, it is the best thing I have ever read.

On the surface, “Hombre” (which was published in 1961) doesn’t look like much. It is little more than a novella in terms of length; and when you get started reading, the first-person narration seems a bit bland. But before long the unassuming style begins to work. You realize that the author is completely at home in this world from America’s past (1884, to be precise; in Arizona). I was never conscious of the research he must have had to do to make it all work; the smallest details are present in the story in so incidental a fashion that they are barely noticed.

The plot concerns a man named John Russell. He is a non-Native American who was raised as an Apache; and if you want an example of stoicism or “grace under pressure”, here it is. He is on board a stagecoach, traveling with a number of people who despise him. But when these people are robbed and left stranded in the middle of nowhere, John Russell becomes their only hope for survival.

Again, this might not sound like anything special or original; but all the characters, the good and the bad, come to life in an utterly realistic fashion. Here is a description of one of the bad ones, an outlaw named Frank Braden:

‘He was tall by the time he reached the counter, with that thin, stringy look of a rider and the ching-ching sound of spurs. Even the dust and horse-smell seemed to be still with him, and he reminded you of Lamarr Dean and Early [other outlaws] and almost every one of them you ever saw: all made of the same leather and hardly every smiling unless they were with their own look-alike brothers. Then they were always loud, loud talking and loud laughing.’

Ordinary people are pitted against such men, and the confrontations are sometimes painful to read; especially in the episode where an ex-soldier is forced to surrender his stagecoach ticket to Braden. And yet this gritty realism comes through without today’s obligatory and tiresome expletives.

A movie version was made in 1967, starring Paul Newman. It is a fine movie, but it could have been better. Somewhere behind the production a decision was made to remove one of the best characters in the novel: ‘the McLaren girl’, who was abducted by the Apaches and had good reason to feel resentment toward John Russell’s adoptive people. But a mutual respect develops between her and Russell that is believable and touching. It is almost unforgivable that this relationship is missing from the film.

In short, “Hombre” the movie is worthwhile; but “Hombre” the book is superb.